The Arctic Resource Curse

The New York Times published a very comprehensive article yesterday about the current assertion of sovereignty over the Arctic. Although this issue is not new to International Relations scholars, those unfamiliar with the topic would be hard pressed to find a reason why anyone would find the Arctic ice sheets a pressing topic in American foreign policy. Unlike our neighbors to the north, Canada, in addition to Russia and Denmark, the United States does not have a large physical stake to the physical land within the Arctic territory; only Alaska extends that far north on the continent. Given that roughly a third of Alaska’s territory is located within the Arctic Circle, the United States is one of five nations that claims territorial lands and waters in the region. This distinction is important later in this piece, as it excludes a single claim to the entire Arctic circle, in addition to other key players that are attempting to lay a stake in the region despite being geographically excluded from the Arctic circle.

With the phenomenon of global warming rapidly eradicating the tundra underneath the massive Arctic ice sheet and melting the sea ice that has naturally blocked commercial shipping lanes from utilizing the Arctic corridor, the region is increasingly being looked upon as the new frontier for oil and mineral reserves and economically viable trading routes. Already, sea ice melt has reduced the transit time from East Asia to Europe in half. Not only does it this save time for global shipping firms, but it also reduces the amount of oil needed to transport these goods. Furthermore, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that up to 30% of the world’s untapped natural gas reserves and 13% of oil reserves lie beneath the Arctic tundra and sea ice. This discovery has prompted Russian, American, Norwegian, Danish and Canadian oil companies to begin tapping into these troves of undiscovered natural resources.


Image Credit: Der Spiegel

The scramble for oil reserves comes during an artificial surge in oil production by the Gulf OPEC member-states to decrease global prices. Despite the market seemingly awash in oil overproduction, and an economic decline in developing countries–including China–experts at Stanford University predict there is only forty years worth of oil reserves left to satiate demand. Of course, fossil fuels will most likely never completely deplete, but they will become increasingly expensive, dangerous and difficult to extract. And that’s where global warming trends and oil prices come in. Until now–despite the artificial drop in oil prices–it was not cost effective to drill for oil and minerals in the Arctic. Growing demand (the United States alone consumes half of the world’s supply) and the depletion of reserves have made it cost effective to conduct otherwise cost inefficient methods of oil extraction, including Arctic drilling, fracking, tar sand extraction and deep-sea drilling. The constant modernization of developing economies and their transition to the middle class will only strain competition over the global oil supply.

With all of this in mind, it is no wonder why Shell pressed the Obama Administration for rights to drill in the Alaskan arctic.


Image Credit: Hofstra University

Cheaper energy prices for consumers, domestic energy independence and a reduction in greenhouse gases from global shippingtransport–what’s there not to like for the average consumer? Here is a short list: more dependency upon fossil fuels in the wake of a rapidly depleting resource that will most likely peak in 2050, pollution in a fragile ecosystem with dire consequences for the rest of the Earth, and fight over these natural resources which only adds to the list of political and economic tensions betweenthe United States, Russia and China. All nations perceive the Arctic as a source of wealth, particularly for oil-dependent Russia. Furthermore, the global scramble over the Arctic invokes a security component, as it calls for the United States to assert a military presence in the region through a larger Coast Guard and Naval presence. Russia has asserted its military presence as well, a move experts perceive as a means of defending its economic zone of interest.

Now, this is where all of those legal definitions come in. Who exactly is entitled to this treasure trove of natural resources–the five nations as designated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which are entitled to exclusive economic zones within the Arctic Ocean–where the majority of the drilling would take place–or the eight members of the Arctic Council? Are nations outside of the Arctic entitled to drill as well? This is certainly a pressing concern for China, who, in a never-ending search for oil and mineral reserves to fuel its industrial production, joined the Arctic Council as an observer in 2013 despite not having any geographical claim to the region. Singapore, Japan, India and South Korea were also inducted, given their interest in these resources and major stake in international shipping and trade.

The Arctic is unlikely to spark the next world war, but it is becoming increasingly integral to foreign policy. Satisfying the demand for natural resources will, over the long-run, influence international relations–just look at the recent Iranian and Russian oil embargoes. For nations dependent upon oil production for a significant proportion of their GDP, asserting their presence in the Arctic is a matter of national interest that has the potential to strain already stressed relations between the United States, European Union and Russia. Already, NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland have responded to the increased Russian military presence in the Arctic with joint military exercises between the three NATO members and Finland and Sweden. This foreign policy issue is certainly an issue to pay attention to, for whomever becomes the next President of the United States. President Obama created the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which comprises of several military components, including the preservation of freedom in the region, enforcement of treaties, protection of the Alaskan territory and U.S. sovereign territory.

This issue is just one example illustrating the effect of global warming towards international affairs and U.S. foreign policy in future years to come. The title of this article refers to the resource curse, or the relationship between natural resource abundance and poor economic growth within oil-producing countries. Hopefully, future leaders will not hedge all of their bets in Arctic resource exploitation, and will explore sustainable economic sectors as to diversify and grow their economies instead of being reliant upon natural resources for economic security. Such situations may lend themselves to a dire need of control over such resources, and punishing consequences if their resource exports do indeed decline over the long-run.

Global Warming in Southeast Asia

These pictures were taken during my recent trip to Malaysia and Indonesia via Sydney and Singapore. They document the everyday realities of drivers of global greenhouse gas emissions in the fastest growing economic sector, Asia.


Motorbike traffic in Jakarta. Jakarta, with a population of 10 million, suffers from extreme air pollution, driven by automobile emissions and congestion, and deforestation for palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan.


Motorbike parking common in shops all over Jakarta. Jakarta’s roads are congested as new members of the middle class are able to afford vehicular transportation in congested Indonesia. However, it is nearly the only option for urban mobility, given that taxis are on average, expensive, and public transportation is woefully inadequate.


Palm oil plantations as seen en route from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta. These plantations dot the entire Malaysian landscape, as it single-handedly accounts for nearly half of the world’s insatiable demand for cheap palm oil.


Palm oil plantations as seen en route from the Kuala Lumpur Airport to the city centre. Deforestation, which accounts for a quarter of global carbon emissions, is led by the rapid expansion of such palm oil plantations.


Morning haze in Jakarta. Shanty towns are prevalent throughout the major metropolitan areas in Southeast Asia, as traditionally agrarian peoples are lured to cities for salary increases. This is one factor that drives high rates of urban sprawl.


Singapore is arguably the financial capital of Asia. Nearly all of the major agribusiness corporations–which produce palm oil–are headquartered here. Still, Singapore’s geographical location does not render it immune from transboundary pollution, water scarcity and a host of natural disasters that have prompted the government to make them matters of national security.

Water & Instability on the Arabian Peninsula

Water scarcity exacerbates Yemen’s already unstable governance. Thirty of the past forty years of Yemen’s history have been marked by civil conflict and instability. As Houthi rebels battle coalition forces, the country’s underlying sources of political and social instability threaten any possible settlement of the current conflict; foremost among these is the lack of access to fresh water. The average Yemeni only has access to a tenth of the UNDP’s annual water benchmark, placing them well below the water poverty line. Yemen’s immense water poverty illustrates the widespread regional water poverty levels across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the world’s “most water stressed region.” Arid conditions, low and variable rainfall and high rates of evaporation due to extreme temperatures characterize the region’s vulnerability to climate change. By 2050, the water per capita availability in the entire MENA region will be reduced by 40%, competing with rapid, further stressing water supplies.


Although a small nation like Yemen seems insignificant in terms of its impact on regional stability, its water scarcity and immense poverty are two underlying issues that are almost certain to create potential discord in the future. In addition to having one of the highest birth rates in the world, at 4.2% per year, Yemen’s population of 23 million only has, on average, access to 100m3 of water annually. Compare this to the United Nations Development Program’s water share benchmark of 1,000m3, and the average Yemeni is significantly beneath the water poverty line. Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is still facing ongoing sectarian violence over water queues. And unlike its neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, there is no government or resources to construct expensive desalination plants that run off of a nearly unlimited domestic oil supply. The Yemeni government’s current collapse is likely implicated in this inability to provide basic services for its burgeoning population through its encouragement of cultivating water intensive crops. This phenomenon is reflected in its ranking as eighth in the Fragile States Index.



Despite this dismal situation, solutions are being developed to address this growing problem. Inexpensive alternatives to desalination and reverse osmosis technology are being developed, especially in Saudi Arabia, as seen with the construction of Al Khafji Solar Saline Reverse Osmosis Plant in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in northern Saudi Arabia. Other desalination techniques, such as electrochemical desalination microchips and Lockheed Martin’s Perforene™ filtration system for potable water, are just some of the technologies underway, and could potentially be exported to such developing, water-scarce nations as Yemen as they become further developed and affordable. Furthermore, a shift in agricultural tariffs and subsidies by the government could act as an incentive for Yemeni farmers to produce less water intensive crops, especially qat, a popular water-intensive narcotic, and practice more efficient irrigation methods.


A desalination plant near Dammam, Saudi Arabia

With rising political instability—as well as growing food and water insecurity across the entire MENA region—water insecurity could serve the political agenda of such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State and multitude of Al-Qaeda franchises. Both of these non-state actor groups impede the security of the Arabian Peninsula. According to a UNESCO report, the deprivation of basic resources creates “ripe conditions for extremists and terrorists to fill the vacuum.” The inability to access basic resources can act as a multiplier effect in weak states, a scenario that some experts attribute to provoking the Syrian War. A serious collapse in water supplies could affect migration patterns, forcing poor farmers and citizens to migrate to countries with better access to resources. And, given Yemen’s strategic location, shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden could be even more prone to piracy. Past governmental collapse and economic depression have led to market shocks in oil prices. Such political and market volatilities are bound to burden wealthier, developed nations, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, through migration and conflict, straining resources and compromising regional stability.

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Map Credit: Business Insider

As Yemen rests on the Saudi Arabia and Oman borders, mitigating this potential threat is crucial to maintaining stability across the immediate Arabian Peninsula region. Incorporating long-term environmental security measures is crucial for planning the long-term stability of the nation and fragile nations like it for all key regional stakeholders. Yemen’s water crisis illustrates the effect of water insecurity on fragile governance, state functionality and its broader implications within complex security nexuses, especially with its neighboring nations. Such a vital resource has proven itself to accelerate and exacerbate fragile political tensions and governance in a traditionally unstable nation. Given these factors, maintaining water security in developing, water scarce nations is crucial to maintaining long-term stability across not only the Arabian Peninsula, but the MENA region in the wake rapid global climate change.

Human Security: An Introduction

Hello readers,

My name is Adela Jones, and this is my first professional blog dedicated to non-traditional, or “human,” security. For those of you who may not be familiar with the concept, non-traditional security deviates from traditional security by basically focusing on meeting the essential needs of the individual to promote political stability. The concept first came into prominence in 1994, when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) pioneered the concept of “freedom from want and fear” as the basic tenants of addressing global political insecurity.

Non-traditional security, since then, has been adopted at the policy level by mostly progressive, European countries–Norway, Denmark and Sweden, to name a few–as well as Australia and Canada. Even nations such as Singapore and China have declared human security issues as a major threat to their national security.  Despite however idealistic the concept may sound, the United States is actually one of the main proponents of the concept. The U.S. Departments of State, Defense and the Intelligence Community (CIA, DIA and the National Intelligence Council, or NIC) have published numerous reports advocating for the adoption and implementation of human security-oriented programs, especially relating to climate change.

Furthermore, major Washington, D.C. think-tanks, including the Wilson and Stimson Centers, the Atlantic Council, Center for American Progress and Center for Security and Climate Change, have published numerous publications and even have departments dedicated to such topics. The Wilson Center has a wonderful blog, the New Security Beat, which is dedicated to non-traditional security issues. International institutions, including many UN organs (World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Development Programme), and world class universities, such as the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Tufts University, the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies, are emerging research centers on a variety of human security-related topics. It may surprise you that the United States military has been one of the earliest proponents of the human security nexus.

There are seven main pillars of human security:

  • Economic Security (Ensuring enough money in which to survive);
  • Food & Water Security (Ensuring enough food in which to survive);
  • Health Security (Access to basic medical needs);
  • Environmental Security (Addressing threats on human life from issues emerging from the environment);
  • Personal Security (Human safety);
  • Community Security (Preventing ethnic conflict); and
  • Political Security (Access to basic human rights as designated by the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights).

So why isn’t human security unanimously adopted? Well, we still live in an area with remnants of the Cold War era still very much alive–just look at Russia. “Traditional” (i.e. military-focused) security is still a major driving force of global conflict, and is the most appropriate way of dealing with such conflicts as the Islamic State and other conflicts. Policy is, for the most part, reactionary, and thus military capabilities are generally more of an attractive action when a conflict escalates.

Human security, in my humble opinion, is the best preventative measure of conflict outbreak. Why do I say this? Well, I’ll give you an example. My research focuses primarily on political instability and environmental issues pertaining to water shortages–both man-made and driven by extreme natural events (especially in relation to climate change). Why is water important? It’s the essential ingredient for life. It can also destroy life–just think of any terrible water-related natural disaster. And it’s led to numerous conflicts over water rights right here in the United States, and as far as Israel, Jordan, China, Vietnam, Russia, India, Mexico, South Africa, Pakistan, Bolivia, and just about every water scarce region in the world. In the next 15 years, half of the world will be water stressed, according to the OCED. And those 3.5 billion individuals will be looking for a source of food and water.

I hope this has been an insightful introduction into the human security dynamic. Please keep reading, and thanks for your support!